To say that Wikipedian Graham Pearce (Graham87) has never seen light wouldn’t be quite true. On a number of occasions up to the age of nine, his doctor or his mother would shine a torch into his left eye, and the few retinal cells that had not died would pick up a strange flash of light. But since then his retinopathy of prematurity has made those fleeting experiences distant memories (and rather meaningless ones, he says).
Not only is Graham totally blind, but as a result of being born 15 weeks premature he has only 50% hearing in one ear—although his other ear is perfect. While some might regard this as a threadbare perceptual situation, that’s not the way Graham sees the world or himself (to use a visual metaphor that blind people become inured to). To know him is to become acquainted with a rich internal landscape, where the linguistic, the spatial, and the proportional seem more sophisticated than for many sighted people. Ask him whether Tokyo is more northerly than Beijing and he’ll tell you. Ask him what the cubed root of 97 is, and you’ll know within a couple of seconds (if only to one decimal place).
Now 29, Graham has been a devoted Wikipedian for eleven years, and achieved adminship nine years ago with a 67–0–0 result. He spends an average of six to eight hours a day onwiki on tasks that keep the site operating smoothly, such as merging page histories, repairing vandalism, and blocking miscreants—all in addition to article writing and editing. From time to time he’s been active in the offline Wikimedia movement: he attended Wikimania in Washington DC (2012) and in Hong Kong (2013), and he expects to be at Montreal this year.
He and I sat down to a Skype audio interview for the Signpost across the 3300 kilometres (2000 mi) between Australia’s east and west coasts.
Tracing Graham’s history on Wikipedia, and further back to his early experiences with computers and the Internet, demonstrates what a profound difference information technology has made to the lives of many people who have an unusual perceptual profile. This is especially true for those who are visually impaired.
“My mother started teaching me braille when I was three. A year later I started typing braille with a Perkins Brailler, essentially a braille typewriter from the 1940s that’s still in use today.” He adds: “A lot of blind tech has always been a decade behind.” At school, Graham used an automated machine that would translate from braille to print. In an unjust twist, the system excluded him from the “gifted and talented program” because of his blindness. But this is where we see the precursor to his involvement in Wikipedia: during “silent reading”, he’d indulge himself by reading the school’s hard-copy encyclopedia and the Atlas for the Blind, while his fellow students chose children’s fiction.
The first of two milestones came in 1997, when he experienced a full PC standard qwerty keyboard in touch-typing tutorials at Perth’s Association for the Blind, “a pretty crude setup”, he says. It was there that he learned how to use the Internet, and Microsoft Word and Excel. But still he had no proper facilities at home. “Although I’d had a desktop PC at home since 1998, it had no ‘speaking voice’, so it wasn’t much use to me.”
The second milestone was a grant he received to install a copy of JAWS on his home computer (JAWS is a computer screen reader with text-to-speech output). “That marked the start of my fast trajectory. I devoured the JAWS basic training tapes and achieved facility through self-training. It went way beyond what I’d learnt at what was then the Association. But still we had no Internet at home.” Finally, in 2000, his family was able to access dial-up Internet at home, just before he started high school.
I ask him what his intellectual interests were at the time: “Internet, computers, maths, and music. I went to a specialist music high school. I got in on a voice scholarship, and I’d already learned to play the piano. That’s aside from a disastrous attempt to play the recorder in year 2!” Graham also has absolute pitch, a coveted ability among musicians.
Becoming a Wikipedian
Fast-forward to the end of high school, just before he joined the English Wikipedia. What predisposed him to the kind of writing and editing required of a Wikipedian? He says: “I had some experience in writing and editing essays, and I’d occasionally heard about Wikipedia. In February 2005, I took the plunge and made my first edit. I took to it immediately using JAWS. From memory, my first activities were on a list of interesting and unusual place names.
“I didn’t even think to tell people I was blind. It just didn’t occur to me, even though there was nothing to stop me from telling people. I think I was mainly a lurker in the early stages, on forums like Featured Article Candidates. I gradually moved from lurker to editor over the first three or four months, and copyedited quite a few articles nominated for FAC. I remember getting into trouble with JAWS, which got a lot of homonyms wrong, as you can imagine. Someone accused me of vandalism at FAC because I’d changed “wear and tear” to “ware and tare”. The accuser was the first person on Wikipedia I told that I’m blind. That night he announced it on his user page, and word soon spread. It was a turning point for me, I now realise: it improved my confidence.”
In 2006 Graham started to advocate for accessibility on the site. He was using an older version of JAWS, and couldn’t afford to upgrade; it didn’t read CSS properly, and HiddenStructure caused JAWS to display “weird things”. He wrote messages on relevant talk pages. Sometimes people were receptive, and with the help of others he expanded into broader issues about accessibility. One example was main-page headings, which were chaotic. He got that fixed.
In those early days he wasn’t able to view diffs properly: “I discovered that by viewing the html source and looking for the CSS class diffchange, the diff changes could be accessed. But this method is problematic when people add/remove line breaks while making edits. In these cases I have to restore the line breaks to figure out what else the editor changed.”
How is it different from vision-based editing?
I want to know more about the experience of editing as a blind person. The most obvious difference, he says, is that nothing is synoptic: “It’s all presented to you in a very linear fashion, in the order the page is written in html. Buttons that appear to sighted people at the top—including the menus, the pull-downs, and the search box—are actually at the bottom when you use JAWS. Under them, right at the bottom, are the items you see on the left-side margin.” I notice he uses a visual metaphor (“bottom”, not “end”) to express it in a way that’s easier for sighted people. Graham adds: “Images, of course, are just part of the linear stream of syntax”. He does the odd bit of maintenance and replacement on images, but understandably it’s a minor part of his work.
Graham finds it easier to edit after copy-pasting from edit-mode onto a plain text file. He can switch back and forth between wiki and a text file because using JAWS he doesn’t have to visually re-find the equivalent place in each. He has JAWS set to a default line-by-line display (in audio). “You can go word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, if you want, using the arrow keys as modifiers. And you can jump between section headings.”
However, it’s by no means a perfect system, and he’s found the slow progress in JAWS’ feature set frustrating over the years.
Astonishingly, his reading speed can be up to 500 words per minute—not skimming, he emphasises. “I haven’t got any faster since 2003, and this speed is typical of blind computer users.” I hear an example in the background of the conversation; it sounds like incredibly fast, garbled, unmodulated speech, stopping and starting at his whim. But what is an auditory muddle to me is a super-fast, clear stream of information to someone who’s used it for years. This is Graham’s bridge to the world. JAWS even signals that a word is initially capitalised by raising the pitch with which it speaks the word. The contour of yes–no questions (on talkpages) rises just as it does in speech. It’s all in a US east coast accent by his choice (“the British accent sounds fake and awful for some reason”, he says).
At the end of the interview I can’t resist asking him about the sensory modes in which he dreams. He says: “I guess it’s more strongly auditory and tactile than for a sighted person. And if it’s spatial, it’s not spatial in a visual way.” Afterwards, he links me to an online article on the subject.
Tony Souter, Wikipedia editor
This post was originally published in the Signpost, a news journal about the English Wikipedia and the Wikimedia community; it was adapted and lightly edited for publication in the Wikimedia blog. The views expressed are the author’s alone and not necessarily held by the Wikimedia Foundation.